“They basically cut off access to abortion services and now they’re trying to cut off access to the courts for young women seeking abortion services,” said Tina Hester, Executive Director of Jane’s Due Process, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring legal representation for pregnant minors in Texas.
It’s already difficult enough for any pregnant person, regardless of age, to access safe abortion care in Texas. After the Republican-dominated legislature rammed through the omnibus anti-abortion bill during a special legislative session in the summer of 2013, the number of safe clinics plummeted from 41 in 2012 to just 17 in early 2015. Abortions are banned at 20 weeks and right now, Texas Republicans are trying to ban all insurance coverage of abortion care.
But there are additional hoops through which 200 to 300 Texas minors must jump every year in order to have a safe abortion. Minors who turn to the judicial bypass process do so for various reasons; they may be orphaned, have little parental involvement, or they might be abused or fear abuse by the same parents who would otherwise help assist them in obtaining an abortion. As the law stands now, to access an abortion without parental involvement, minors have to prove to a county judge that they are either: mature enough to decide to terminate their pregnancy; that it is not in their best interest to notify their parent or guardian; or, that notifying their parent or guardian would lead to sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. That’s quite a burden of proof to safely terminate a pregnancy.
But if HB 3994 becomes law, that process will become even more onerous. The bill would require minors to file for judicial bypass in their own county, unless it has a population of 10,000 or less. This could put her confidentiality, fundamental to the judicial bypass process, at serious risk. “When a minor is forced to go to her local courthouse in rural communities, her confidentiality is near impossible to protect,” Hester said. The bill would also change the grounds on which a judge can rule in her favor. Right now, minors can claim physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in the judicial bypass process. The bill would remove emotional abuse as a factor.
This possibility is particularly alarming for Hester. “We hear a lot on our hotline that young women are concerned that their parents will disown them, will abandon them, or will just be verbally abusive, calling them unmentionable names,” she said. “It takes out that option and it makes it much more difficult for the girl to prove abuse.”
As it stands now, bypass is considered to be automatically granted if the judge doesn’t rule in two business days. This law would change that entirely. Judges would now be given five business days and if they don’t rule in that time, bypass is considered to be automatically denied, rather than automatically granted. If this happens, the pregnant minor could be “put into this kind of pregnancy purgatory,” Hester said. “She has no options.”
The bill would also require abortion providers to demand government identification from patients to prove that they have reached the age of majority. Providers would also be required to report to the state health department about abortion care they provide to any patient who does not show valid identification. A woman now has to produce a government-issued ID, something many low-income and undocumented immigrant women lack, in order to prove that she can make her own decisions.
Women are both entitled to and are capable of making their own reproductive health care decisions, and that includes minors. If a minor says that she is not ready to be a parent, why would we ignore her? If a minor’s safety or life is at risk if she can’t terminate a pregnancy, why would we ever make it more difficult for her to access an abortion?
Line after patronizing line in this bill reveals the answer: anti-choice legislators don’t trust women—at any age—to make their own medical decisions.
Minors need access to the full range of reproductive and sexual health care, too, and that includes abortion. This bill would likely deny safe abortion care to those who need it most. This bill isn’t just playing with their rights; it’s endangering their lives.
Lauren Rankin is a freelance writer, feminist activist, and board member of A is For, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing women's reproductive rights. She has a Master of Arts in Women's and Gender Studies from Rutgers University.